Allies: A Discussion Activity

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Educator and author Mara Sapon-Shevin offers strategies and ideas to help students become allies -- people who stand with or for others.

After leading students in a discussion about ways children and adults are discriminated against, the next question is: "So what do I do if I notice this happening?" One useful way to begin the discussion with young children is as follows:

  • Seat students in a circle and go over some of the "isms." This might follow an incident that has occurred in the classroom or the community, or something else.
  • Ask students to think of times when they witnessed some kind of oppression. This might be someone ignoring a child who is waiting to be served in favor of an adult (adultism), making a racial slur about African-Americans (racism), one student calling another a "faggot" or a "lezzie" (homophobia), and so on.
  • Then ask students to think about a time when they took action or did not take action, and ask them share their story with a partner. Ask students to consider the following: Why did you feel comfortable or uncomfortable speaking up? Students likely will share issues of power ("It was my teacher who said something sexist, so I didn't know what to say"), relationships ("It was someone I'm good friends with, and I knew it would be okay even if he got mad at me right then for telling him not to do that"), or knowledge ("I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know what to do or say" or "I was afraid that if I said something I'd get in trouble or make it worse").
  • From there, engage students in role-plays or discussion about how they can interrupt bullying or other oppressive behaviors, using their own experiences or provided examples:
    1. You're on the playground and one of your friends tells you not to invite Marcus to be in the game because he's a "homo." What do you do?
    2. Three of you are planning what to do over the weekend, and one of your friends proposes a plan that you know the third person won't be able to afford. What do you say?
    3. One of the students in your reading group starts making fun of a student in a lower reading group, calling him a "retard" and telling him he reads "baby books."
  • Generate, with students, a list of things they might say when they see an injustice being perpetrated.

I have often found a three-step response to be important to young students when they deal with oppressive comments by their peers: First, stop the commentary and behavior. Second, educate the person who is making the comment about the reality of the situation. Third, leave the person with his or her dignity and self-respect intact.